In the mining industry, the company is one of few that currently pay the government handsome royalties and creates a significant economic value.
It is little wonder then that the Managing Director (MD) of Lucara Botswana, Naseem Lahri, has been announced the winner of the 2022 FORBES WOMEN AFRICA Impact in Leadership Award at the recently ended All Africa Business Leaders Awards. It applauds African women who inspire confidence through rewriting the rules of the game as well as female leaders who campaign for positive change and are committed to economic and social transformation in the continent. For Lahri, this is a testament to the capabilities and abilities of women to even lead in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), which has been dominated by men since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century. Lahri is the MD of a company where women make up 70 percent of its Board of Directors while women also constitute a huge portion of the Executive Management.
Her Forbes award follows another award given to the company that she heads at this year’s Mining Indaba that was held in Cape Town in May. Lucara was this year’s winner in the Equality & Diversity category of the Junior ESG Awards 2022 by the Mining Indaba Sustainability Committee. Lahri sees the awards as a testimony to the great achievements that they have made as they celebrate 10 years of existence, which has almost set itself apart as a trendsetting and exceptional diamond mining enclave in the industry.
Infact, for the past 10 years, a total of 841 Specials (single diamonds in excess of 10.8 carats) have been recovered, representing 7.8 percent weight percent Specials, the highest annual volume of Specials recovered since Karowe commenced production in 2012. During the 2021 financial year, revenues of US230.1 million were recorded, representing an increase of 84 percent over the 2020 financial year. According to Lucara Botswana’s MD, it was not easy for the company to grow to a point where revenues hit US230.1 million, nor was it easy for Lucara to recover a total of 841 special stones since 2012.
“To us, we celebrate an exceptional 10 year anniversary,” Lahri says. She boldly states that at Lucara, they are not just a typical diamond mine. “You should see how we operate,” she says, emphasizing on their exclusive cutting edge XRT technology that was used first in Africa by Lucara. The XRT technology, address processing of the very dense high quality south lobe ore at depth and will result in the most efficient and cost effective processing methodology for processing this ore. The company owns and operates the Karowe Diamond Mine, located in the Boteti region here in Botswana.
The mine was commissioned in 2012, to the tune of US$120 million.(around P1.2 billion) as an operation that comprised an open pit mine, crushers, an autogenous (AG) mill and a Dense Media Separator (DMS) recovery plant. Karowe now has an annual production of just under 400,000 carats of gem quality diamonds (including Type IIA) which are sold through regularly scheduled tenders throughout the year. Of importance, in addition to its regular diamond production, Karowe Mine has been producing some very large, exceptionally high quality diamonds (including some coloured stones). These stones are sold by special tender as recovery dictates.
Lahri reveals that it was not all rosy post-commissioning since they faced production challenges, especially during the first year of operation. In January 2013, Lucara recovered two rare Type II blue diamonds at its Karowe Mine (weight, 4.77 carats and 0.2 carats) in addition to the blue diamond it recovered in 2012. Suddenly, Lahri notes, the recoveries spoke to the potential that Lucara has through its Karowe operation. Two months later, a 239 carat gem quality diamond was recovered at Karowe Mine, the first of a population of large diamonds recovered from the Centre and South lobes of the mine in 2013.
It was the beginning of the good times for Lucara. Rarer and bigger gem diamonds were yet to follow the likes of which Lahri says she had never seen in her career. She had been an employee of Debswana, the colossal diamond miner, for 10 years. When she left to join Lucara, she was skeptical about her move and career choice at Lucara. “Despite having worked for Debswana for a very long time, it was my first time to see such large stones at Lucara. It solidified my move from Debswana to Lucara,” she says, adding that if Lucara could recover such exceptional stones continuously, they could only imagine the potential that lies underground.
After the consecutive recovery of the ‘big stones,’ Lucara Botswana started marketing itself as producers of large stones. This was more so because 30 percent of the production at Lucara comprised of large stones. Interestingly, that 30 percent of the total production was accountable for 70 percent of revenue, which emphasized the significance of the large stones at Lucara. The vision at Lucara, according to Lahri, was then centred around technology, the idea being to maximise and perfect the recovery of these large stones.
In 2014, a major plant upgrade project, primarily integrating new large diamond recovery (LDR) X-ray transmissive technology (XRT) machines, was introduced to process harder ore and to improve the recovery of exceptional diamonds. The most significant results from the optimisation project were recovery of a 1,111ct gem quality Type IIA diamond which was later named Lesedi La Rona, and an 813ct stone and a 374ct stone white diamonds in mid-November 2015. Lesedi La Rona, which measured 65mm x 56mm x 40mm in size, was at the time the world’s second biggest gem quality diamond ever to be recovered and the biggest diamond to be recovered through a modern processing facility, as well as the biggest diamond recovered in Botswana at the time.
Given the significance of technology in the recovery of these large stones, Lucara further installed the highly successful XRT technology to process finer size fractions at its Karowe Mine. The technology included four new XRT diamond recovery units and the associated conveying and screening infrastructure which targets the recovery of diamonds in the size range of 4 mm to 8 mm. The XRT technology addressed processing of the very dense high quality south lobe ore at depth and will result in the most efficient and cost effective processing methodology for processing this ore. Through this technology, Lucara has over 90 percent diamond recovery rate and minimal breakages.
One of the testimonies of this technology is that in April 2019, the largest diamond to be mined at Karowe to date, an unbroken 1,758 carat near-gem quality diamond, was recovered. This recovery is the largest diamond recovered in Botswana and one of the largest diamonds recorded in history, superseding the spot held by the 1,109 carat Lesedi La Rona recovered at Karowe in 2015. Meaning “rare find” in Setswana, the name Sewelô was selected for the diamond from over 22,000 submissions in a contest open to all citizens of Botswana. The unbroken stone was recovered through Lucara’s XRT circuit in April 2019.
Lucara partners with Louis Vuitton
In one of its strategic partnerships, Lucara entered into an agreement with Louis Vuitton, the famous luxury goods house, and with HB Antwerp, a European diamond manufacturing and technology company, for collaborating on the planning, cutting and polishing of exceptional diamonds, especially the 549 carat white gem diamond referred to as Sethunya, meaning “Flower,” in English. The stone was recovered unbroken at Karowe in February 2020. The agreement builds on the collaboration, announced in January 2020, with Louis Vuitton and HB on the historic 1,758 carat Sewelô, so far the largest stone to ever come out of Botswana.
Lucara underground expansion to extend mine life
The approved underground expansion of the Karowe Diamond Mine, will extend the mine life up to 2040 from the initially planned 2026, says Lahri. Moving Karowe underground, a plan announced in late 2019, will allow Lucara to exploit the highest value part of the orebody first. This would generate over $5.25 billion in gross revenue. Lahri says the project, for which pre-production costs have been pegged at $514 million, will be largely financed from cash resources with external funding.
While the project was planned a few years ago, it took long to implement because Lucara was still looking for the best underground mining model, so as to mitigate risks and ensure that it is done right. “We spent time doing a thorough due diligence, because there are a few underground mining methods available, we wanted one that is suitable for us,” says Lahri. She is excited that since it would be the first ever diamond underground operation in Botswana, there will be a lot of skills transfer to the locals and employees of Lucara. The company will secure a technical partner, experienced enough to handle the technicalities of underground mining.